Those of you who regularly visit Wordville will imagine the glee with which I dispatched this tweet last Thursday at the American Copy Editors Society conference in Las Vegas:
SHOCKER: AP Stylebook abandons the meaningless "over/more than" distinction.
I can’t claim credit for the decision, though I have been hectoring the editors about it for some time (water on stone, water on stone). And the response was also gratifying: many. many tweets and responses elsewhere, some supportive, some expressing mock outrage, some expressing what might be genuine distress.
But before we have a look at the responses, I pray you spare your wrists by taking these points into account:
1. The AP Stylebook has neither statutory authority nor ecclesiastical dominion. It is an advisory style guide whose recommendations are not binding on its users.
2. The AP did not say that you must use over for more than, merely that it is unobjectionable if you do. See Point 1; you can’t be compelled to use it if you don’t want to.
3. Your personal preferences remain intact. You are always free to make aesthetic choices in your own writing. And if you have been given sway to impose those idiosyncratic and unsubstantiated preferences on subordinates or students, I can ridicule you but not stop you.
Oh, also, the guy at LinkedIn’s Copy editors and proofreaders group who wrote that abandoning the over/more than distinction amounts to “a continuation of the dumbing down of the language for those unwilling to learn the difference”? His views you can reject out of hand.
So on with some fun.
At Facebook, Alex McCartney was moved to quote Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Disapproval of over (‘more than’) is a hoary American newspaper tradition.” And “Over in the sense of ‘more than’ has been used in English since the 14th century.” And “There is no reason why you need to avoid this usage.”
At The American Heritage Dictionary we find this usage note: “While working as a newspaper editor in the late 1800s, William Cullen Bryant forbade the use of over in the sense of ‘more than,’ as in These rocks are over 5 million years old.* Bryant provided no rationale for this injunction, but such was his stature that the stipulation was championed by other American editors, who also felt no reason to offer an explanation. Critics later allowed this usage in some contexts, but their reasons are dubious at best. In point of fact, over has been used as a synonym of more than since the 1300s. In our 2009 survey, 86 percent of the Usage Panel accepted over meaning ‘more than.’ This usage is fully standard.”
And Garner’s Modern American Usage, as I have pointed out previously, calls the over/more than distinction “a baseless crotchet.”
Not that any empirical evidence or authority cuts any ice with people to whim baseless crotchets give meaning to their lives and professions. Thus, from Facebook and Twitter:
“makes me mad! over=spatial”
“My journalism degree is officially worthless.”
“More than my dead body!”
“This one is hard-wired in me.”
My favorite: “Our long national nightmare is over.”
Here, though I risk being declared a renegade by my tribe, is an explanation of this minor furor.
Copy editors are dedicated to precision in the language, to attention to details that writers often overlook, and they cling to their style guides to establish consistency in usage. Little things matter a lot.
So the copy editor guarding against the sea of imprecision and inaccuracy that threatens to roll in and sweep away established clarity and precision is watchful for the typical leaks in the dike: over/more than, like/such as, and scores of others. They are not only listed in the stylebook; they have been taught by journalism teachers and inculcated by editors and copy desk chiefs. When they go through a text and mark off their checklists of overs and such ases, they feel that they have fulfilled their professional function as editors.
Someone who comes along to brazenly say that over/such as is a baseless crotchet invented out of whole cloth in the nineteenth century and mindlessly repeated by generations of editors and journalism professors, that is an affront to their sense of self-worth.
Moreover, since they know the writers and, worse, the corporate executives think that they are a pack of drones wasting their time on trifles that no one cares about, any exposure of their shibboleths is also a threat to their livelihood.
Well, I have spent a good deal of my professional career enforcing baseless crotchets (and teaching them). I have decided that there are more productive ways to edit.
*Creationists, please keep out of this.